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Hillary Clinton Has a New Plan to Crack Down on Corporate Tax Dodgers

December 10, 2015, 3:14 PM UTC
Hillary Clinton in the first Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas on Oct. 13
Hillary Clinton in the first Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas on Oct. 13
Photograph by Josh Haner — Bloomberg via Getty Images

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton detailed plans on Wednesday to crack down on companies that shift profits overseas, a practice known as earnings stripping.

Clinton is spending this week explaining how, if elected president in November 2016, she would address tax-avoiding “inversion” deals in which a company buys or merges with a foreign rival and relocates on paper to lower its U.S. tax bill.

“This is a technical term for a trick,” Clinton told a town hall in Waterloo, Iowa.

Earnings stripping is a widely used technique and covers a range of deals that shrink the taxable U.S. profits of multinational corporations while still allowing them to take advantage of some U.S. tax deductions.

Clinton’s campaign estimates that closing the “earnings stripping loophole” would raise $60 billion over 10 years that could be used to provide incentives for manufacturing, research and small business.

As an example, she cited the $160 billion plan by U.S. pharmaceutical maker Pfizer (PFE) to purchase smaller rival Allergan (AGN) and move its headquarters to Ireland. One of the “primary benefits” of that deal is earnings stripping, her campaign said.

Clinton, the leader in opinion polls for candidates seeking the party’s presidential nomination, has called on the U.S. Congress to stop such deals by requiring the acquiring foreign entities to control at least a 50 percent stake in the combined company instead of 20 percent under current law. She has also suggested an “exit tax” on the untaxed earnings of corporations that use inversion deals to relocate overseas.

“I would close loopholes like what’s called ‘earnings stripping’ that corporations are exploiting. And if Congress won’t act, then I will ask the Treasury Department when I’m there to use its regulatory authority, if that’s what it takes,” Clinton said Wednesday.

The Treasury Department, after a wave of inversion deals, announced new regulations in September 2014, targeting certain tax-avoidance deals. The regulations did not take on earnings stripping directly, but the department reserved the right to make any future regulation retroactive to that date.

“That was a signal to me that they thought they could do something by regulation,” Harvard Law School lecturer Stephen Shay said in an interview.

Shay said the “sentiment in the tax community today is yes there is regulatory authority to do something” about earnings stripping. Shay has written on the topic and has spoken to Clinton’s campaign in recent weeks.